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The strongest link

WINDSOR, Ont. - Three new border crossing proposals are vying to be the next link at the Windsor-Detroit gateway - the busiest commercial border crossing in the world.Handling 12.5 per cent or $125 mi...

WINDSOR, Ont. – Three new border crossing proposals are vying to be the next link at the Windsor-Detroit gateway – the busiest commercial border crossing in the world.

Handling 12.5 per cent or $125 million of all daily trade between Canada and the U.S., there may in fact be no relief from a fourth border facility as actual construction may be as long as a decade away. That definitely poses some problems since, spurred by NAFTA, trade is expected to triple by 2020.

There are currently three links between Windsor and Detroit – the Ambassador Bridge, which opened in 1929, and the Windsor-Detroit tunnel, which opened a year later and a barge service for dropped trailers. But due to obvious restrictions involved with the latter two, the bridge is clearly the area’s overwhelming commercial crossing of choice.

All three proposals aim to augment the bridge’s capacity, and they’re initiatives which officials in the trucking industry say can’t come fast enough.

First out of the gate was the Ambassador Bridge itself. Bridge management has proposed creating a twin span immediately west of the existing one. The cost is $400 million and the span would be six to eight lanes. Bridge traffic is expected to at least double by 2012 to five million trucks annually and 16 million cars. The bridge group has purchased land on the Canadian side to accommodate construction.

Second is a plan for another suspension bridge, similar in design to the Ambassador Bridge although the footings would be on land, not in the water, which proponents consider a selling point because of little disruption to boat traffic and the environment. The bridge would be located three miles south of the Ambassador Bridge. An international consortium called Mich-Can International Bridge Co. is putting this proposal forward.

In addition to the new bridge, proponents argue their plan would ease traffic congestion on land approaches. The current approach to the Ambassador Bridge is Huron Church Road, a six-lane connector between the bridge and Hwy. 401, which is already subject to community complaints by motorists about truck congestion. Neighborhood residents also say it poses a danger to pedestrians crossing the road.

As Windsor traffic engineering commissioner John Tofflemire says, “When the 401 and the interstates were constructed in the post-war era this connection was ignored and we’re paying for it now.”

The $600 million Mich-Can proposal would see trucks exit Hwy. 401 through a Windsor eastside connector to the existing E.C. Row Expressway, which traverses the south side of the city and links on the west end with Ojibway Parkway. Bridge access would be from there. In a speech last December to the Detroit chamber of commerce, management team member Reginald Turner, said the proposal would “immediately reduce” trucks on Huron Church. Further, it would be “compatible” with longer-term options to connect the 401 with I-75, which runs south to Ohio and Kentucky. “This would allow truck traffic to get to the bridge without winding through downtown Detroit neighborhoods.”

But, at least in Canada, there are questions about the connecting route. The EC Row Expressway, currently only two lanes each way, may be a sticking point. “There has to be a lot of work done on the EC Row with special provisions for local people to use it (along with trucks),” Ross Clarke, the company’s managing director and a Windsor land surveyor, admits. And Tofflemire, the traffic commissioner, remains skeptical.

“I think there’s a lot of problems with that,” saying there are no plans on the books for a link between the 401 and the EC Row. The EC Row itself is a city roadway and competes for maintenance money along with many other road projects under an oft cash-strapped city administration. Tofflemire says city transportation policy is to have a distinct controlled access route from the 401 to I-75.

Perhaps the solution is an underground link. Borealis Infrastructure Management Inc., created by the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS) to propose, fund and manage infrastructure investments, is proposing a “train-truck super tunnel.” Borealis, along with Ontario Michigan Rail Co., in 2001 acquired Canadian National Railway’s 50 per cent ownership of the existing Windsor-Detroit rail tunnel. Another partner is Canadian Pacific Railway.

Under the Borealis proposal, the existing tunnel, which comprises two tubes, would be retrofitted for truck traffic and a new rail tunnel built to handle taller rail cars. Not only this, but the proponent would create a segregated two-lane truck way from 401 to the tunnel entrance.

“Such a route would remove all cross-border traffic from the local road system,” Borealis chief executive officer Michael Nobrega told a trade conference last fall. The dedicated route would use a rail right-of-way connecting to the 401.

“We’ve done the design for it, we know we can do it – to move the rail tracks over and put a truck route beside it, with noise barriers and so forth,” Borealis’ managing director Yuri Pill, says.

The proposal would pave over little-used train marshalling yards for a 14-lane truck inspection plaza.

The city’s Tofflemire called the Borealis proposal, “very interesting and helpful,” adding it would, “certainly help as far as truck traffic is concerned,” but he didn’t think it was, “a permanent solution.”

Most agree any long-term solution must include a controlled access highway between 401 and I-75.

The latest proposal from the Ambassador Bridge company is for a 26-hectare inspection plaza located several kilometers from the existing bridge. After clearing Customs, trucks would proceed along a dedicated four-kilometer road to the bridge itself. Taking pressure off busy Huron Church Rd., the plaza would be just off E.C. Row Expressway.

But at least one city councillor isn’t exactly in favor of the scheme. Brian Masse, who represents the neighborhood, says it would disrupt the area. “Rerouting through a residential area is just not very good.”

Tofflemire says there could also be an impact environmentally on the west side neighborhood and nearby natural area and suggests there could be congestion over “how to bring trucks” from roadways into the inspection area itself.

As for the status of both proposals by the bridge operator, in the face of uncertainty over approval of a new link and opposition to the plaza, general manager Skip McMahon would only say, “We just keep banging away on it.”

Before any link is chosen, an exhaustive multi-agency international series of feasibility and environmental studies must be completed. That could take as long as seven years, government officials add.

But Borealis Nobrega says the timeframe is too lengthy.

A regional transportation authority should be created, “to deal solely with cross-border infrastructure requirements,” and granted appropriate planning, environment and funding powers, he contends.

Nobrega says if proponents have to wait until, say, 2010 or 2012 it, will be, “much too late to accommodate the increasing trading patterns between the State of Michigan and the Province of Ontario.”

Trucking interests, too, just want to get on with the project.

“There’s a need for it now let alone five years from now,” says Steven Ondejko, vice-president of the Windsor Transportation Club and president and owner of Onfreight Logistics, a local firm with about 50 per cent of its haulage to the U.S. “From a purely trucking point of view the delays at the bridge are costly.”

Angelo Pernasilici, co-owner of Windsor-based Laser Transport Inc., says another link is needed as a kind of insurance. He says it’s “not a slight” against the Ambassador Bridge, but when traffic gets backed up, there needs to be an alternative.

“It’s in the best interests of everyone not to be limited.”

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